Interview By Ville Krannila & Kimmo Tattari / Semptember 2009
Steel Mill took another trip towards Western Finland, Salo more specifically, and hooked up with John Lawton for a chat. The illustrious frontman is most known for his time with Uriah Heep, replacing their original vocalist David Byron in 1976 and singing with the band for three years and as many albums before departing for a solo career.
Besides Heep, Lawton has worked with Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers among others, led his own group John Lawton Band and briefly reformed with his old Heep mate Ken Hensley for Hensley/Lawton Band some years ago. Now Lawton arrived in Salo for a three-day Uriah Heep convention where he was scheduled to play with ex bandmates Hensley and drummer Lee Kerslake plus early Heep bassist Paul Newton. Topics for discussion included all of the above plus John’s new musical projects, documentary filming and Bulgarian nature.
Your new band is called On The Rocks, how long have you been together now?
Well, we haven’t really been together. I have never met the Brazilian guys other than in this past February – I went to Brazil and met the keyboard player. We haven’t actually physically played together. The tracks on the album “Mamonama” were recorded in Sao Paulo with Jan Dumée. He organized that. He came back to Holland, I went there and did the vocals. The album is now released in South America I think at the end of August and there’s been some talk of doing concerts.
How about the European release, it’s a hard-to-find album?
That was last October or November. And the distribution is not good. But it’s unfortunately one of those things you have to live with. It’s very difficult to get a record deal with any record company these days, unless you are a big star.
With Brazilian players involved, did you experiment with local rhythms and instruments?
Not really but the drummer plays rock with a different feel, which I quite like. The keyboard player is also very good, a jazz-influenced musician. The bassist is very solid and Jan is basically a jazz and blues guitarist. And the album is a mixture of jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. Songs are very good, it’s difficult to describe unless you have actually heard it.
Who wrote the songs?
Me and Jan together. He originally wrote these songs for the guitar. And when you write like that, you always play a lot of different things. So when you come to sing his melodies, you have to change things around a bit – to make it more straightforward, less complicated, more vocal lines – it’s a little bit more difficult to do that. But we did it and it worked out okay. I was quite surprised myself! (laughs)
So these shows you are playing now with the other ex-Heepsters, what kind of set-list can we expect? Will some rare songs get an airing or will it be strictly classics?
Oh it will principally be Uriah Heep songs. That’s what this weekend is about. And with Ken, myself, Paul and Lee it will be the classics. The likes of Circle Of Hands – a German tribute band – they play things that we don’t, like “Tales,” “Salisbury” and “The Park.” To play songs like that you really need to rehearse a long time to get it right. And we just don’t have that time. This is really just the four of us getting together with a guitarist that I’ve never played with before. We’ll all see how it goes.
Do you ever get tired of singing those Heep songs?
No. If I go out to do a show on my own, we will do the classics. You have to do “July Morning,” you have to do “Easy Livin’,” “Look At Yourself” and “Wise Man” but I try to get a couple of John Lawton songs in between. But not too many because otherwise people will get upset. And it’s always a different audience every night.
Let’s go back to the beginning, you started out in late 1960’s in Hamburg, Germany, playing in Top Ten Club. How was it like?
It was great to play actually. It was very much a musician’s city. The Star Club was just starting to go a little bit downhill and the place for us to play was the Top Ten Club on the Reeperbahn. I played there twice in one year, it was a great place. You played from 7.30 in the evening until 3 o’clock in the morning, 20 minutes play, then 5 minutes break and so forth. If you take a band over there and you haven’t played together for a while, you play every night for three weeks for that amount of time, by the end you are going to be very tight.
But Hamburg’s all changed now. The music scene like everywhere else has slowly disappeared. In England it’s the same thing. There are not many live venues for bands anymore, unless you are Motörhead or whatever, then you will always find a venue to play. But for young bands, there are not many places for live music. In Germany, the Reeperbahn in the 1960’s was the place to be. Music was what made Hamburg famous. And we don’t have that same atmosphere anymore, it’s all died since then.
After playing in Germany for a while you formed Lucifer’s Friend, right?
Well, actually I didn’t form them as they already existed. But they were looking for an English singer. They had all the tracks recorded apart from maybe two or three tracks which we co-wrote. I happened to be there with a group called Les Humphries Singers at the time. And this was totally different. Les Humphries Singers were a pop gospel choir, 30 people. And Lucifer’s Friend was a rock band. So they wanted an English singer and got me.
Is it true that Les Humphries Singers was involved in the Eurovision song contest?
Yes in 1976, we came second last! Nowadays Eurovision’s very political, it’s got nothing to do with songs anymore. One country will vote for its neighbour. That’s why I never watch it because you go: “Oh that’s a great song, that must win” but because Moldavia didn’t vote for it as it’s not their neighbour country, it doesn’t have a chance.
Still that must have been an experience?
Yeah it was good. We did it in Hague, Holland. It was an experience to do and I’m glad to have done it but it’s not something I would like to repeat. Especially not now.
How many albums did you record with Lucifer’s Friend before joining Uriah Heep. Which one is your favourite?
I did five of them and “Banquet” (1974) is my fave.
Are those still available commercially?
They are very, very hard to get. The first one has been re-issued but the rest of them are almost impossible to find. I have my own copies, which are mine and nobody gets them. They have been released on CD, a company in Hamburg produced one but for some reason they stopped, I don’t know why. The only way to find them these days is on eBay. I still get e-mails from people saying I want to buy a copy of this or that. And sorry, we don’t have them. If you can find them, that’s great but there’s nothing I can do about it.
So there’s no chance of getting new remastered editions?
No. Not unless there’s a massive amount of people who want to buy them, then our record company might think twice about remastering them. It’s a real shame but that’s the way the record industry works. You bring out a new album and if it sells then they will remaster it and keep copying it until the sales stop. But if it doesn’t sell thousands and thousands then they won’t bother. Originally we printed 5000 copies and not all of them were sold, so the rest is obvious.
In 1976 you joined Uriah Heep. How did that happen? Had Lucifer’s Friend reached its end by then?
Lucifer’s Friend was never really a live band. The guitarist, keyboard player and drummer were all involved in James Last Orchestra and I was with Les Humphries Singers. At the time they had so many big hits in Europe that it was an ongoing thing. Then after Eurovision where we failed so miserably, Les himself decided he was not going to bother anymore. And all of a sudden I got a call from Ken Hensley saying they were looking for a singer. He had heard some of the stuff I’d done with Lucifer’s Friend and found it interesting. I had to go and buy a Uriah Heep album, “The Best Of” to learn the songs. I knew the name of the band but not any of their songs so had to learn a couple of them. I went and did an audition and got the job.
Were there any other candidates?
Yeah, David Coverdale was a candidate, Ian Hunter was another. There were two other names but they for whatever reason didn’t make it at the time.
How did you feel about stepping into David Byron’s shoes?
When you replace a singer who has been with the band since the beginning and had much success it’s hard to top. To replace him was very difficult. That’s why I decided to change the image slightly, so I went with eye make-up, did my hair and just took it totally different from David Byron. And it worked. After the first tour fans were coming along and wearing the same make-up, ear rings and so forth. So, slowly but surely, it worked but his name will never be forgotten. He is the man who sang on all the classic stuff. You can never replace somebody like that and I would never even try because David Byron is David Byron. Like John Lawton is John Lawton. So I would never try to compare myself with him cause that would be unfair.
You sang on three Uriah Heep albums (Firefly, Innocent Victim and Fallen Angel), how do you view the band’s evolution through them?
Well, “Firefly” was already recorded when I joined. I just overdubbed the vocals. There were basic tracks, John’s (Wetton) bass, guitar, some basic keyboards, and all I had to do was put the vocal on. Then they added their other instruments after that. With “Innocent Victim” I had a writing input which was ok for me. I put in about three or four songs but the only one that was taken was “Free ‘n’ Easy.”
As Ken Hensley pretty much dominated the creative side of things, was it hard for you to get your own stuff across?
Yes it was. If the band is successful with one person writing most of the songs – although Mick Box’s input is well known throughout Uriah Heep’s history – it’s very difficult to break through and do that. You can say “Look, I’ve got 5 or 6 songs, have a listen to these” and at the end of the day you decide which ones you are going to go. And if they decide one song is better than the rest then who am I to argue?
On your last album with Heep, “Fallen Angel” you wrote “I’m Alive” which is very much true Uriah Heep in spirit, so you must have had something to offer creatively as well?
Yeah, but like I said it was difficult to break through. Not only for me, but also for Lee Kerslake. Lee’s a good songwriter, he wrote a lot of songs which also weren’t accepted. Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. It’s very difficult to say. If you say this song should have been there and this song shouldn’t you create problems that you don’t really want.
Did you use any of the songs you wrote back then later on with your own projects?
Yes, I used “Tonight” which is on an album called “Ten Miles” – which has the outtakes from other albums. It’s being tossed around as a bootleg, some of them are called “Ten Miles”, some of them “Five Miles”. An album that would have followed “Fallen Angel.” That’s a collection of outtakes that weren’t used on the album.
Is there any hope that this material could be officially released?
No, I don’t think so. Mick Box has said many times that he doesn’t feel that’s worth releasing. It was never mixed properly, what you have heard are just rough mixes of the songs. So he’s said on many occasions he doesn’t think it’s representative of Uriah Heep – especially not today. I still use some of those songs, “Tonight” was on my “Still Payin’ My Dues To The Blues” album. We re-recorded it so it was a different version.
The band then broke up during the “Five Miles” session..
Yeah, I left the band and then shortly after that Lee left and again after that Ken left.
What happened to cause your departure?
A conflict of interest, really. You write a song like “Free Me,” which is a pop song and you have a hit with it. That’s great but that’s the way everyone’s then trying to write songs. And that’s not to me what Uriah Heep’s all about. Uriah Heep’s about all the early stuff, “The Wizard,” “Easy Livin’” “Stealin’” – those kind of songs. So we had a conflict of interest.
After you left the band there was another album straight away with Lucifer’s Friend, right?
Yeah I did another album with them titled “Mean Machine.” There are two versions of it – the American and German. Unfortunately sales weren’t great
The 1980’s was a somewhat lost period, what were you up to during that decade besides putting together The John Lawton Band?
I went back to doing what I like to do, which is playing good songs regardless of whether it’s covers or Uriah Heep songs. So I got together with some guys I liked playing with and we played small gigs everywhere. The name of the band was Gunhill at the time. Then more and more people kept saying “Why don’t you play some Uriah Heep songs?” So we did and after playing gigs in the UK and Germany it became the John Lawton Band.
How many albums came out of that?
Well, we did “Sting In The Tale” which was an actual album and we did a DVD called “Shakin’ The Tale”. And we did couple of albums before that, one was called “Night Heat” when the band was still called Gunhill and a collection of songs called “One Over The Eight”. That’s only available on cassette and strictly limited edition CD. And I do have copies of that! (laughs)
In 1995 you returned to Uriah Heep singing with them in South Africa. How did that happen?
I did four shows with them there and two later on. Mick came to see me and said: “Bernie (Shaw) has a problem with his voice, we have a tour of South Africa with Deep Purple, would you step back in?” So we did four gigs in South Africa with Deep Purple and then two festivals in Germany. After that Bernie had recovered from his operation so he was the singer again.
Did you sing tracks originally cut by Bernie in these shows?
Yes. I have no problems with doing something like that, and Uriah Heep will always be a big part of my life. I can’t change that and we still get on great today. We are still good friends, Mick Box, Phil, Bernie, Trevor, Lee and myself.
Plus you sang with them on their “Magician’s Birthday” shows twice in the early 2000’s. Your duet with Bernie on “Sympathy” was especially great to hear…
Yeah, I liked it a lot too. We are good mates. He’s the singer in Uriah Heep, I’m the ex-singer and there’s no problem. I respect him and he respects me, we work well together.
What did you think about the latest Uriah Heep release “Wake The Sleeper?”
I think it was really good. The only thing I don’t find in there is a single, otherwise it’s a pretty good album. What’s missing is one song which is radio friendly, if you understand what I mean. I’ve said that to them as well, I don’t make any excuses for it. I think the album is well played and well produced but I just miss one song.
It speaks a lot about the current record industry that it took 10 years for Heep to put it out because of different record contract issues..
It’s very difficult for a lot of bands. Like I said before, unless you are a very big name and have sold thousands and thousands of records you are in trouble. They will ask how many albums this band has sold and something like 5000 is not enough. You need to sell at least 30 or 40 000 copies before they even consider doing another one. That’s a problem a lot of rock dinosaurs have these days. It’s unfortunate the way it goes. It’s a nature of the beast.
In 2001 you reunited with Ken Hensley and formed Hensley/Lawton Band, how did this reunion take place?
We had a Uriah Heep convention in London in 2000. It was the first Heep convention where the actual members came along, ex-members like Alex Napier going way back to the early days. We tried to get Uriah Heep themselves, but Mick said they had some gigs in Scandinavia and couldn’t come. Because I was one of the organizers as well. And then one of the guys said “Why don’t you ask Ken if he wants to come?” And Ken and I hadn’t spoken for 13 years because we didn’t finish on the best of terms. But you should never let things go that long that you can never re-kindle a friendship. So I e-mailed Ken and asked him: “It’s been a long time, bla bla bla, do you fancy doing this convention?” He wrote back and agreed, so he came to London, we met, chatted, got along well.
We did the concert with Paul on bass, Ken on keyboards and the guitarist and the drummer from my band. We recorded the live CD called “The Return” and record company Eagle picked it up and wanted us to go out and play. We formed The Hensley/Lawton Band, did some gigs in Holland and Germany and some other stuff, but it was never going to be a permanent thing. It was a way for Ken to get back into the music business after so many years and I knew that. It wasn’t a problem for me. So we decided after the end of the short tour we did that Ken would go on to do whatever he was doing and I would carry on doing my own thing.
So there are no plans for Hensley/Lawton Band comeback?
No. We are too far down different roads now.
Any other activities going on in your life besides music?
Yes, I’ve branched out. Music’s not 100 % what I’m doing now. I’m filming travel documentaries for television. It’s a series of travel documentaries about Bulgaria. That’s what I’ve been doing since last December, this new DVD is the first one we did. It’s just been shown on TV two weeks ago. We have done some more since then. The idea is not just to present Bulgaria as a place to go, the beaches and so forth, but the history and culture of the land. So this is what I’m doing at the moment and it is good fun..
How about your musical goals, what do you hope to achieve in the future?
Well, I’ll be doing some more concerts in between filming with the guys I work with in Bulgaria. We do the Heep stuff, classics and so forth. We play about three or four concerts in between filming. At some point I have to do some new recordings when I can find the time. I don’t have time now as this filming takes all of it, I’m actually going back to Bulgaria next Tuesday. We have been filming the whole summer for new footage, so it has been taking up most of my time. Sometime in the New Year I have to sit down and put some new songs together.
How does the song writing process work for you?
I have a few ideas I’ve been working on. It’s challenging because you have to shut everything else out. If you are doing something like this documentary making, there’s a lot of research that goes into what I’m doing. It’s not just a case of standing in front of cameras. We visited a lot of monasteries, castles and all kinds of historical places so to do it takes a lot research and you have to close everything else out of your mind to concentrate on this. And I need two or three weeks to actually just close everything out and try to work on the ideas that have been buzzing around in my head. Get my guitar out and see if there’s anything there. If there is, great. If not, tough.
Thanks a lot, John!
John Lawton on the web:
Special thanks to Tapio Minkkinen and Esa Ahola.